Bye-bye, $1.25: Smart meters could spawn ‘surge’ pricing for street parking

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

When Boston last increased parking meter rates in 2011, bumping the hourly charge to $1.25, some drivers were shocked. It was, after all, the first price hike since the mid-1980s.

Now, technology is about to bring even more significant changes to parking prices, at a faster pace. In the next few years, street parking prices could rise and fall in response to surges in traffic, part of a high-tech overhaul of the city’s parking infrastructure that includes new meters and the ability to pay with smartphone apps.

City officials say the switch to variable parking rates won’t happen until Boston installs a significant number of Internet-connected “smart” parking meters, which offer the ability to both alter prices from afar and collect data about how much they’re being used. The $6 million switchover from aging coin-operated models will take place over the next few years.

Once those new meters are installed, city officials could use them to alter the flow of traffic by bumping up prices at meters on clogged streets and lowering them on out-of-the-way avenues.

By doing so, Boston hopes it can cut down on the number of drivers who are either camping out on a cheap street spot or circling the block looking for a prime piece of real estate in an already congested area, such as Fenway Park.

“How do we incentivize them to maybe look at a side street, or a few blocks away? What are the price points that would affect that?” said Gina Fiandaca, commissioner of the Boston Transportation Department. “It’s a classic issue of supply and demand.”

Cities are increasingly experimenting with technology that will allow them to charge different prices for public parking spots at different hours of the day, or around major events.

San Francisco is the poster child: the high-tech capital hosted a federally funded program called SFPark, which began in 2011 and altered parking rates around the city. Seattle, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh are also experimenting with variable parking rates.

The program sought to keep parking spots 60 to 80 percent full, so there were always available spots when people wanted them. Meters increased the price of street parking by 25 cents per hour if spots were too full, and dropped the rate by up to 50 cents per hour if there were too few cars.

In a study of the program, San Francisco’s transportation agency said double-parking dropped by 22 percent and drivers spent 43 percent less time searching for spots in areas where variable pricing was in effect.

Fiandaca said one lesson from the San Francisco experiment is the need to make rate changes gradual and well-known to the public, avoiding nasty surprises at the meter.

“When someone pulls up to them right now, you know that you need to have five quarters to park for an hour,” she said. “We don’t want to catch people by surprise: ‘Oh no, today you need six.’”

In Back Bay, where any space is hard-won prize, business owners hope they can benefit from City Hall using its parking assets more strategically, said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association.

The ability to charge more during the busiest times, for example, could keep cars moving in and out of a busy corridor, cutting down on drivers who move from spot to spot in a daylong game of cheap-parking hopscotch, she said.

“I can remember a transportation commissioner once coming to our group and saying ‘I’m very sorry, everybody, but the curb is not elastic and I can’t stretch it to accommodate more vehicles,” Mainzer-Cohen said. “But, in a way, this does that.”